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Senator Peters sits with US Army Research Director, is Silent on Trump Proposed Military Budget when President addressed Congress

March 13, 2017

A few weeks ago, President Trump presented before a joint session of Congress his proposed budget for the US military. The proposed budget was a $54 billion increase from the previous year, which was roughly $600 billion

There was not a great deal of resistance to this announcement from the Democrats, mostly because the Democratic Representatives and Senators are just as tied to the military industrial complex as are their Republican counterparts.

Take Michigan Senator Gary Peters, for example. Peters sits on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, just like his predecessor Carl Levin. And just like Carl Levin, Senator Peters is equally committed to protecting private military contractors, especially those based in Michigan. 

Just days before President Trump told a joint session of Congress that he plans on increasing the US military budget, Senator Peters was in Sterling Heights, Michigan, visiting the military contractor BAE Systems

In a Press Release from February 23, Senator Peters stated:

“I am proud that Michigan workers at companies like BAE Systems and its suppliers are developing solutions to meet the challenges of the future of warfare. As a new member of the Armed Services Committee, I am committed to supporting these manufacturers so they can continue to supply our service members with the best equipment and vehicles.”

To further demonstrate his commitment to the military industrial complex, Senator Peters was seated next to Dr. Paul Rogers, Director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC).

According to a news release on the day of President Trump’s address to Congress, Senator Peters said: 

“TARDEC is leading groundbreaking research that keeps our military at the forefront of new technological developments that improves safety for our service members, supports Michigan’s leading role in the transformation of mobility and drives our growing defense manufacturing sector. I’m honored to have Dr. Rogers as my guest for the President’s address to recognize TARDEC’s innovative work that will ensure our service members are prepared for the next frontier of warfare.”

In a statement from Senator Peters, responding to the President’s address to Congress, Senator Peters is silent on Trump’s proposed increase in US military spending. His statement was vague overall, but no surprise that someone as entrenched in the military industrial complex as Senator Peters had nothing to say about the US military budget, a budget that is the largest in the world. 

Grand Rapids Property Management company makes low-income tenants disposable

March 13, 2017

In an example of solid journalism, Grand Rapids Press reporter Jim Harger’s article in Thursday’s paper, investigates the property management company Eenhoorn LLC’s efforts to push low-income tenants out in favor of making larger profits. 

However, it should be noted that the GR Press article was the not the first to report on this matter. Nick Manes, writing for MiBiz had written about the very same topic two month’s earlier. Courthouse News Service also reported on the issue in early January of this year, thus making the Grand Rapids Press story seem a bit late. 

John Smith, a lawyer with Legal Aid of West Michigan, has taken the case of Kari Thompson, a tenant who moved into loft apartments at 26 Sheldon Blvd SE in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Press article states:

According to a paper trail unearthed by Smith and other Legal Aid lawyers, Eenhoorn bought ownership control of the properties and loaned them money backed by mortgages. The entities that held the mortgages took the properties back through a legal process called “deed in lieu of foreclosure” when the properties fell behind on the mortgages.

The foreclosures allowed Eenhoorn to get out of the final 15 years of its 30-year obligation to provide low-income housing at the properties, said Smith, who discovered the foreclosures while representing a low-income and disabled resident of The Lofts, a downtown Grand Rapids apartment project at 26 Sheldon Blvd. SE.

Kari Thompson is the plaintiff in a case against Eenhoorn LLC, where Thompson filed a complaint about how they were treating her. You can read the 28-page case file here

Eenhoorn LLC has engaged in the same practice at other properties they own in at least three states, according to the lawyer with Legal Aid of West Michigan. On top of that, Eenhoorn has demonstrated that it puts profits over people, when a HUD audit revealed that the property management company was engaged in “Equity Skimming.” 

It should also be noted that the lawyer representing Eenhoorn in this dispute, is Nyal Deems, the former Mayor of East Grand Rapids and now working for the law firm of Varnum. In addition, Deems was the face of the One Kent Coalition, a private sector group that was attempting to change the structure of government in West Michigan, a change that would benefit those involved in the campaign, such as Dick & Betsy DeVos, Peter Seechia and others that make up the local power structure. 

While Eenhoorn has engaged in this kind of tactic against other working class tenants in the past, the recent case can be directly tied to the dramatic change in the housing market in Grand Rapids over the past decade.

We have heard from numerous tenants and from community organizers that rent has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, making it impossible for people to afford the increased rental costs. Many people have been forced to leave Grand Rapids and move to Kentwood or Wyoming, where the housing market is not as expensive as it is in Grand Rapids.

Another technique that landlords and property management companies have been encourage to pursue is to convert their apartments into Vacation Rentals or Airbnb. A workshop was offered at the recent Rental Property Owners Association held in Grand Rapids at the convention center in February. Landlords and Property Management companies know that they can get top dollar in the current market, thus leaving out thousands of working class families and individuals like Kari Thompson.

Resisting the System or a Symptom: Movement building over electoral politics

March 10, 2017

It has been a few months now since the November election and we have witnessed a tremendous amount of activity centered around opposing the person of Donald Trump.

The opposition to the new president is refreshing in some ways, but this is a pattern amongst liberal and progressive circles. Liberals and progressives tend to get activated when their party is not in power.

We are seeing this same dynamic in West Michigan with lots of marches and increased attendance at public meetings held by local members of Congress. Again, seeing people become more engaged is refreshing, but to what end? What does all this activism mean and what will it do to dismantled systems of power?

Tomorrow, there will be an event entitled Surviving the Trump Apocalypse, hosted by One Michigan Alliance and David LaGrand. One Michigan Alliance is a Democratic Party front group and David LaGrand is a Democratic politician. The agenda for the day, and the strategy of the organizers, is as follows: 

  • Canvassing Door-to-Door and Volunteering for Campaigns
  • Indivisible Resistance Tactics
  • How to Become a Candidate Yourself (or help a friend)
  • Legislative Update and the Year Ahead with Representative David LaGrand and others

The strategy, as evidenced by the agenda, is purely centered around electoral politics or what Noam Chomsky refers to as the quadrennial strategy. Every four year (or two if you prefer) a tremendous amount of energy and money is expended on trying to get politicians and political parties elected. So lets look at how the electoral system works and if that has really furthered our ability to resist systems of oppression.

Elections have always been influenced by centers of power and money. As the first Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay always said, “those who own the country, ought to govern it.”

More specifically, we know that billions of dollars are spent every four years on elections, which is itself a system that has been designed to keep power in the hands of those who own the country. It’s not that the electoral college is flawed or the delegate system is flawed or even the how Presidential debates are flawed. But the fact is, they are not flawed, because the electoral system was designed this way.

Look at the trajectory of partisan politics since the last great American period of revolutionary movements, between the 1950s and the mid-1970s. Since then all politics has shifted further to the right, regards of what political party we are talking about. The reason why it has shift is because there has not been enough popular resistance to this shift, especially since most of our energy has been spent on getting “our people” elected.

This is a failed strategy, a losing strategy and a strategy that will not promote an end to systems of oppression or create collective liberation.

The way we resist, the way we build grassroots power, the way we practice liberation is not by appealing to politicians or those in power. We create power and practice liberation when we practice collective. autonomous movements for radical social change. This has always been the case. The abolitionist movement was not about appealing to politicians, it was a movement of slaves engaging in self-emancipation. The resistance to slavery and white supremacy took on the form of people who were enslaved killing their masters, revolting, uprising and creating the underground railroad because those enslaved were not going to wait for politicians to decide their fate.

The labor movement, especially from the 1870s through the 1940s, was a movement that sought to democratize the workplace, by giving workers power to determine the conditions of which they wanted to work in. Some of these unions, not all, also believed that capitalism needed to be overthrown and replaced with a different kind of economic system.

The same can be said about so many other movements throughout US history. They didn’t bother to appeal to those in power, they took matters into their own hands. These movements made demands of those in power and made damn well sure their were consequences.

If we are serious about resistance, why would we want to keep perpetuating the same kind of systems that we know do not lead to greater freedom, equality and justice? Look at the difference between those who fight systems of oppression compared to those who put their energy into electoral politics.

Resisting Systems of Oppression:

  • Black people resistance police brutality, the prison industrial complex and neo-liberal capitalism = Black Lives Matter
  • Communities of Color fighting the arrest, detention and deportation of immigrants and white supremacy = Immigrant Justice Movement
  • Indigenous people fighting against pipelines and fracking are fighting for environmental justice and climate justice = Standing Rock and Idol No More
  • Communities in resistance around the world fighting US imperialism and war = The Zapatistas, Palestinians, the Arab Spring, the Landless People’s Movement in Brazil and Via Campesina – just to name a few.

We are in desperate need of having a political vision that thinks way beyond electoral politics. We need to develop strategies from liberation movements from around the world and within the US, like the ones we just mentioned. We need to stopped settling for the lesser of evils or as political writer Paul Street names it, the more effective evil. We need to stop thinking about trying so damn hard to be pragmatic and start practicing liberation collectively.

Lets us listen to the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, someone who knew a few things about collective liberation and direct action:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Rolling Stone Magazine article on Betsy DeVos cites numerous West Michigan sources, including GRIID

March 8, 2017

In an article entitled, Betsy DeVos’ Holy War, Janet Reitman does a thorough job of reporting on and investigating Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. 

There are several West Michigan sources cited in the article, like the President of the Acton Institute, Rev. Robert Sirico, along with some community organizers and Grand Rapids School Board member and a local public school teacher.

Reitman cites lots of good background material, such as the book Amway, the Cult of Free Enterprise and Russ Bellant, who has been tracking the religious and political right in the US and Michigan for almost 30 years.

I spoke with Reitman for almost two hours on the phone and exchanged dozens of e-mails over a three-week period, as the Rolling Stone Magazine writer was uncovering as many of the local angles as possible. GRIID is cited in the story and the comments she uses are fairly reflective of the conversation we had.

What is important about the article is its broader articulation around the role that reconstructionist christian values influence the DeVos family politics. An important contribution into our collective understanding of the DeVos family and the values they embrace and impose on the public.

Perpetuating Food Apartheid: New Urban Grocery Stores in Grand Rapids

March 8, 2017

Last week, Rapid Growth Media ran a piece about new grocery store efforts in Grand Rapids. The article, discusses food deserts and the variety of responses that people are involved in. Unfortunately, the article and the new grocery stores will only perpetuate food insecurity in Grand Rapids. 

There are several misconceptions that people have about those who experience food insecurity. The first misconception is the very language we use to try to describe the problem – food deserts.

The article states, “Calvin College defines food deserts as large continuous areas within urban areas where healthy and balanced food stores are difficult to access.” While it is true that people living in certain urban neighborhoods are limited in where they can access their food, the definition of food deserts is highly problematic.

Sociologists have been using the term food deserts since the 1970s, but the term is misleading in two ways. First, a desert is a thriving ecological system that provides plenty of food for the lifeforms that make up those ecosystems. Secondly, food deserts fails to convey the historical, economic and political dynamics which led to neighborhoods being food insecure.

The food system in the US has been evolving over the past 100 years and a large reason why there are limited food options available in many urban neighborhoods is because there has been a consolidation of grocery store chains that has led to large hyper-markets like Meijer or Walmart that require lots of land to accommodate the volume of food they carry and lots of parking since we are a car-dependent society.

The fact that grocery store chains exist are based on economic and political factors that made small, family-owned grocery stores obsolete, because they could not compete. These smaller stores could not compete, especially after the 1960s, when larger stores began to dominant the market, utilizing massive municipal subsidies, building near highways and other major road systems, investing in massive advertising budgets and appealing to the white population that was fleeing urban areas because of increased racial tensions, resulting in White flight.

On top of this, the highly subsidized food system began to promote and expand the amount of unhealthy food items, items that were highly processed and cheap to produce. Many of these products were not sold by smaller, family-owned stores.

However, increasing food insecurity not only means limited grocery store options, it means limited or no options for farmers markets or the use of urban land for neighborhood-based food growing. Too often, the term food deserts is limited to whether or not there are grocery stores, which excludes all other other ways that people can access food.

So, instead of food deserts, a term that would more accurately depict the limited food options in certain urban neighborhoods could be called food apartheid.

Food apartheid would more honestly reflect the social, economic and political forces that made the decisions that resulted in some urban neighborhoods having reduced food options. Food apartheid also is more honest because it reflects that the decisions about where people in urban spaces could access food was made by a small number of people, with no real input from the public, and it was a decision that primarily benefited white suburbanites while punishing communities of color.

What is happening now in cities across the US and in Grand Rapids, is that white people are flocking back to downtown and core urban neighborhoods and displacing people of color and working class white families.

In reading the Rapid Growth Media article it becomes clear that where all the “new” urban grocery stores that are featured, are in neighborhoods that are being gentrified. The downtown market, the Grand Central Market, Martha’s Vineyard, the new Meijer store on the near westside and the prosed grocery store that will be part of Diamond Place on Michigan near Medical Mile are all in areas where new development projects are displacing working class families and communities of color.

The upwardly mobile and disproportionately white professionals moving into these neighborhoods are now demanding more food purchasing options. In addition, these new grocery stores that are feature in the Rapid Growth article will actually not reduce “food deserts,” they are merely re-centering healthier food stores in increasingly white-dominated neighborhoods.

Thus, the new grocery options in urban Grand Rapids are not only not changing the food system, they are participating in the gentrification of neighborhoods that once were working class and communities of color dominant.

The Business Press coddles Betsy and the rest of the DeVos Family

March 7, 2017

On Sunday, one of the two major business publications in West Michigan, ran a front page article headline, As Betsy DeVos takes Cabinet post, family to continue community engagement

The MiBiz article presents Betsy DeVos and the rest of the DeVos Family as, inextricably woven into the community.” This is not an inaccurate statement, rather a statement from a certain perspective. Those of us who write about local politics might call it a process of population management or social control.

We use those kinds of terms, especially since the DeVos Family through the organizations they are apart of (West Michigan Policy Forum, GR Chamber of Commerce, Great Lakes Education Project, Grand Action, etc) and their foundations as a way to influence local, regional and state politics that reflects the values they embrace – anti-working class, homophobic, neo-liberal capitalist, hyper-conservative christian and white supremacist values. These are evidenced by the organizations they are part of. The foundations also perpetuate these values, but also provide major funding sources for the non-profit sector in West Michigan as a means of censoring these groups from even thinking about challenging those values.

The MiBiz article spends a fair amount of time talking about the ways in which Betsy DeVos has had to divest from certain areas, particularly areas related to education. There is a link in the article to the 108-page document from the US Office of Government Ethics

Related to Betsy DeVos having to remove herself from being part of some of the family holdings, MiBis cited Remos Lenio, partner at investment banking firm Tillerman & Co. in Grand Rapids. Lenio, has a person connection to the DeVos family and is said to share the DeVos Family’s desire to make Grand Rapids into a “Christian Wall Street.”

None of the DeVos Family members are cited in the MiBiz article, instead we hear from two of the DeVos Family operatives, Greg McNeilly and John Truscott. McNeilly, who ran Dick DeVos’ failed campaign for the Governor of Michigan in 2006, continues to work as a DeVos operative, when he became the Windquest Group’s Chief Operating Officer in 2012. McNeilly also runs one of the DeVos state policy front groups, the Michigan Freedom Fund, which lobbies for policies that represent the DeVos Family’s conservative christian values and neo-liberal capitalist interests.

John Truscott used to work for former Governor John Engler as his Press Secretary. In addition to being a spokesperson for the DeVos Family, Truscott is a founding partner of Truscott Rossman, a public relations agency based in Michigan, which has clients such as the Van Andel Institute, CWD (Cummings, Weirda & DeVos), Experience Grand Rapids and the City of Grand Rapids. 

Towards the end of the article is states which boards that Betsy DeVos has had to step down from, but the MiBiz piece suggests that there are no major changes to what the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation does in the community.

However, the MiBiz article does not provide any analysis of what the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation has provided money to since it’s inception. They simply quote John Truscott who says, “No major changes are expected from Dick and Betsy’s foundation. While she does not have a role in the foundation while serving as Secretary, the family will continue to help people and make a significant philanthropic impact.” 

I guess what Truscott means by helping people is to fund all kinds of groups that attack public sector workers, working class families, the LGBT community, women’s reproductive rights and to support Religious Right groups in Michigan and across the nation.

According to the most recent year available on Guidestar for the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation (2013), here are some of the “charitable” organizations they contributed to

  • Acton Institute $250,000
  • Alliance for School Choice $250,000
  • Bethany Christian Services $25,000
  • Endeavor Global Inc $162,500
  • Foundation for Excellence in Education $100,000
  • Great Lakes education Foundation $200,000
  • Mackinac Center for Public Policy $50,000
  • Northwood University $200,000
  • Pregnancy Resource Center $20,000
  • Right to Life Michigan $25,000
  • Willow Creek Association $1,000,000

In the end, the MiBiz piece not only fails to scrutinize the DeVos Family, it only cites DeVos Family operatives as it relates to what their businesses and foundation are involved in. Considering this article appeared in the business press, it is no surprise then that MiBiz ends up coddling the most powerful family in West Michigan.

A well founded fear: The GRPD and the Immigrant Community

March 6, 2017

Nearly two weeks ago, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan hosted a forum with some elected officials and Grand Rapids City staff to address concerns from the Latino/a community about immigration policy and law enforcement.screen-shot-2017-03-06-at-2-19-08-am

A few days ago, Michigan Radio interviewed Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky about that forum and his take on how local law enforcement should respond to the most recent concerns over immigration status.

The interview is instructive and should raise concerns amongst the immigrant community and those who stand in solidarity with them. While Rahinsky implores the immigrant community to not be afraid to call the GRPD, he makes some statements that would not reduce the level of fear the immigrant community has of law enforcement agencies.

In response to the question of what constitutes a sanctuary city, Rahinsky said,If an agency arrests someone who is here illegally and books them into either their municipal facility or their county facility, I believe we have an obligation to notify our federal counterparts in ICE of that arrest.

This statement is consistent with what the Grand Rapids Chief of Police has said in recent months in that he still believes that his officers have an obligation to cooperate with ICE. There are no clear parameters of what it means to be a sanctuary city, but one thing that has been fairly consistent is that local law enforcement will NOT cooperate with ICE officials.

Something else that Rahinsky said, which should give us cause for concern, was this response to a question of how he can get the immigrant community to trust the police.

Conversely, if you are a criminal and you are here illegally, we are not offering safe haven. We are not neglecting our role in law enforcement. We are just making a clear line of demarcation in terms of people who need our help and the criminal element.

Such a statement does not reduce the fear that people will feel, especially since the line between criminal behavior and those who come to the US as undocumented is not very clear when it comes to police interpretation. The current administration and many people in the community already see those who are undocumented as having engaged in “criminal” behavior.src-adapt-960-high-new_orleans_immigrants_013014-1391119675499

There are efforts underway right now by immigration lawyers and immigration justice advocates to get the city of Grand Rapids to adopt clear guidelines and policies that will minimize the possibility of people who are undocumented ending up at the Kent County Jail. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department has made it clear that they WILL fully cooperate with ICE officials and notify them when those without documentation are booked into the jail.

What was noticeably absent from this Michigan Radio story were immigrant voices. The article would have been fundamentally different had their been immigrant voices talking about their reality and their lived experience of being afraid of law enforcement agencies.

Lastly, it should be stated that we must come to terms with what the function and role of law enforcement agencies is, which is not focused on community safety. The bottom line function of police department is to protect power and privilege. When Chief Rahinsky says he wants people to not be afraid to call them, he wants us all to believe that the GRPD’s role is to protect people. The GRPD might, in some instances, protect people from further harm, but their primary function is to protect power, which does not include the most vulnerable in our community – people of color, immigrants and the working class poor. The sooner we come to recognize this the more we can imagine and practice how to keep our communities safe without relying on police departments, but relying on each other.